Judges or Activists: Institutional Legitimacy in an Uncertain World


In many settings courts face political pressure to deliver rulings favorable to one side or another. Courts must also cultivate a reputation for political neutrality - legitimacy - in order to secure compliance with their rulings. When faced with political pressure a court may choose to stand firm in order to protect its reputation or to cave in, sacrificing institutional legitimacy for political gain. How a court chooses to balance these objectives may depend on the initial conditions under which it is established. We consider a model of judicial decision making in which a court delivers rulings over time, subject to varying levels of political pressure. Courts faced with intense political pressure in their early years are more likely to ‘‘give up’’ on reputational concerns and bow to even low levels of pressure in subsequent years. Courts which are insulated from politics during their formative period are more likely to cultivate a good reputation and subsequently to protect that reputation by standing up to political pressure.